Commentary: Is COVID-19 the final straw that breaks the Orchard Road camel’s back?

Commentary: Is COVID-19 the final straw that breaks the Orchard Road camel’s back?

As the coronavirus pandemic accelerates the transition to e-commerce, the grand dame of shopping in Singapore must pull itself together to regain its status as the little red dot’s most popular street, says Karen Tee.

Takashimaya's atrium was empty.
Ngee Ann City's atrium was empty. (Photo: Karen Tee)

SINGAPORE: Last week, I finally set foot in Orchard Road for the first time since Singapore’s circuit breaker started in April to get a much-needed haircut.

It felt good to return to my old stomping ground but it was also disconcerting to walk through the empty shopping district.

Many boutiques had cleared out their window displays and packed away stock. The corridors of Mandarin Gallery were empty, save for the occasional delivery person hustling to pick up food from an F&B outlet that had kept its kitchen open.

At Takashimaya basement, where I had dropped by for a brief supermarket sweep at Cold Storage, I paused to gape at the bizarre sight of the mall’s vacant bazaar atrium which in normal times is usually thrumming with bargain hunters.

I was saddened to witness this once vibrant, bustling shopping district now devoid of activity.

Yet in a way, this ghost town scene also offers a dystopian peek into what might lay ahead for this shopping street years in the future, if it continues on this gradual path of decline.

HOW NOW ORCHARD ROAD?

Orchard Road’s troubles started long before the coronavirus’ advent. In recent years, there has been much talk about how it has been slowly losing its appeal, especially in comparison to newer and more architecturally impressive destinations like Marina Bay Sands and Jewel Changi Airport.

Last year’s sordid Orchard Towers murder case, which led to a renewed scrutiny of this sleazy, vice-filled corner of this supposedly glitzy district, did not help either.

READ: Commentary: Will Jewel Changi Airport sound the death knell for Orchard Road?

READ: Commentary: Does Orchard Towers belong in Orchard Road?

Increasing vacancy rates, high rents and decreasing footfall have tarnished Orchard’s shine.

Mall landlords too have a role to play in this sad state of affairs, in choosing to sign on cookie-cutter tenants, leading to an uncanny sameness among multiple buildings along the shopping strip, which hardly encourages leisurely mall-hopping.

Now, with non-essential retail stores shuttered during the circuit breaker and food establishments allowed only to operate delivery and take-out services, like most other malls around Singapore and the world, the district has become tragically irrelevant.

Even Mandarin Gallery was empty, save for a few food deliverers.
Even Mandarin Gallery was empty, save for a few food deliverers. (Photo: Karen Tee)

COVID-19 MADE THINGS WORSE

Retail’s reliance on human traffic and physical interaction has been its Achilles’ heel.

The collapse was swift. According to the latest data released by the Department of Statistics, retail sales in Singapore plunged by 40 per cent year-on-year in April. Even more heart-stopping is the freefall drop in sales for Orchard Road-centric categories such as department stores (-75 per cent), apparel and footwear (-74.8 per cent) as well as watches and jewellery (-81.3 per cent).

Marquee events have been cancelled. While Orchard Road’s signature event, the Great Singapore Sale, was finally regaining some steam last year, there will be no GSS this year because of COVID-19.

These may be the first signs of an impending coronavirus-triggered global retail apocalypse. While there have been some initial reports of post-lockdown “revenge spending” in South Korea and China, experts agree shoppers will not likely return in hordes, especially with concerns about safe distancing, not to mention an impending recession.

READ: Commentary: When economies reopen for business but families are reluctant to spend

READ: Commentary: Life in China after COVID-19 lockdown gives normal new meaning

In the United States, the looting and destruction of many shopping districts during the Black Lives Matters riots have added a security dimension to the challenge that will likely delay the reopening of these destinations even as COVID-19 restrictions are eased.

And in Europe, there is currently little news about shopping surges even though some countries have been gradually reopening.

This crisis has even gripped longstanding retail titans. Inditex, the company which owns fast fashion brand Zara, announced this week it would be shuttering up to 1,200 stores worldwide. Other clothing giants such as H&M and Gap have also reported sharp declines in sales.

In Singapore, household names like apparel brand Esprit is closing all 11 stores here, Robinsons is winding up its Jem department store by August and many local retailers are unsure how long they can continue staying in business in this gloomy climate.

E-COMMERCE OUR NEW NORMAL

In this harsh new reality, many brands and retailers have been scrambling to make an almost panicked pivot to digital shopping. The transformation has been messy but worth applauding when more are recognising the permanence of this sea change.

Orchard Road shopper
A shopper is seen along Orchard Road, Apr 4, 2020. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

This makes sensible strategy whether you’re a chain or a single shop. Even luxury brands, a category traditionally been slow to make the e-commerce leap and preferring to provide clients with a full, sensorial in-store experience, are now aggressively touting their online shopping and delivery services.

Though I have always preferred to browse in a physical store, I too have been unable to resist buying things online just for the temporary thrill of retail therapy while confined at home. (I am now the sheepish owner of too much exercise equipment, a dozen identical crew-neck t-shirts in different colours and a few sets of pink fairy lights.)

Many people have moved from hesitantly trying out online shopping for essentials like groceries or toilet paper to buying so much more - and they will likely never look back.

READ: Commentary: Does long-term WFH mean goodbye to makeup?

READ: Commentary: Why we can’t resist splurging on online shopping

When the economy reopens, people might do some shopping on their weekly supermarket runs, so shops in heartland malls may experience some lift from pent up demand.

Yet where does that leave Orchard Road if heading to the main shopping district is no longer a weekend routine to pass time? Will the coronavirus usher in an ice age for retail promenades?

A GLIMMER OF HOPE

There is a chance this pandemic might induce a much more compelling Orchard Road to emerge from the ashes. We know that plans are already ongoing to transform the shopping belt, unveiled last year by Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.

However, many of its initial proposals, including pedestrianising sections of the road and holding more street activities seem counter to the need for social distancing for the foreseeable future.

The committee may need to modify these plans to address this reality. Hopefully they will also consider this key question - how can Orchard Road continue attracting serious big spenders?

As it is, the root of the issue - that the repetitiveness of the shops are just kind of uninspiring - is something that only landlords can figure out.

Even international luxury brands can afford to differentiate their local boutiques a little better. For instance, is there even a difference between the Louis Vuitton boutiques at Ion Orchard and Takashimaya?

Maybe it is not such a bad thing that Zara, Esprit and possibly other fast fashion brands might be closing at least some of their multiple cloned Orchard Road stores. This would then create the opportunity for more creative and varied uses of the vacated space.

READ: Commentary: Despite the huge e-commerce challenge, the Singapore mall is fighting back

A woman passes closed down shops at a section of a mall in Singapore
A woman passes closed shops in a section of a mall in Singapore. (File photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

READ: Commentary: The death of the department store and a dwindling middle class

As someone who has fond memories of trawling the tiny indie boutiques at youth hangouts like Far East Plaza and The Heeren and spending hours in Tower Records, I truly miss the quirky and unique spirit of this bygone era.

Other once popular Singapore brands, like Song+Kelly, Alldressedup and Mphosis have sadly folded, at least in part due to the proliferation of fast fashion. These were the shopping destinations that gave consumers a sense of Singapore at its most inspiring, a factor that is key in getting people to hand over their credit cards.

Think of the spaceship-like Comme des Garcons flagship in Omotesando, Tokyo; the riotously exuberant Style Nanda boutique in Seoul, South Korea; or the ornate Galeries Lafayette in Paris. When you visit those boutiques, chances are, you would probably buy at least a small item as a memento to remind you of the experience.

More than ever, we need standout, one-of-a-kind and ideally homegrown retail concepts in Singapore that cannot be found elsewhere to anchor our flagship shopping district.

We already know people will still spend money.

With retail shops opening this Friday (Jun 19) as we enter phase 2, perhaps there will be a boost in sales figures with the population in a celebratory mood.

But in the longer run in phase 3 and beyond, as people become accustomed to living with social distancing as the default, they will need a compelling reason to strap on a mask, step out of their homes and continue making their way into a brick-and-mortar shop.

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Karen Tee is a freelance writer.

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